Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500 share center stage over racing’s biggest weekend.
Coca-Cola 600 in need of a spark
Racing 600 miles at Charlotte has long been NASCAR's attempt at one-upping the open-wheel gang and that group's lasting importance of the Indianapolis 500.
The 600 has certainly turned in to one of the sport's favorite traditions — I'd recommend ignoring anyone who complains about the length of the race this weekend — largely based on the excess of the mileage but also due to its move to a day-night event in 1993. It was a race that had developed its own unique flair, allowing it to stand out on an otherwise long calendar.
A combination of events, however, have come together to reduce some of the race's prestige. Advances in racing technology have made the race less of a taste of endurance, a glut of NASCAR night racing has lessened the unique day-night draw and, for more than a decade, the event hasn't been part of NASCAR's former bonus program that established the race as a crown jewel event. Faster speeds and a heavier dependence on aerodynamics has also caused some separation in the racing.
Mind you, the Coca-Cola 600 isn't failing and it’s not on a last leg. But the race certainly isn't held in the same reverence on the NASCAR calendar that it once was.
What's the best cure? It's impossible to know. But the race needs a shot in the arm.
Car transition period key for Busch at Charlotte
"Doing the double" is a phrase that has once again become relevant at Charlotte Motor Speedway beyond special requests at the concession stand, all thanks to Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch. Busch, of course, is planning to race 1,100-plus miles Sunday by becoming the first NASCAR driver since 2004 to start both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.
After a brief taste of that back-and-forth racing lifestyle last weekend, crew chief Daniel Knost noted this week that Busch's greatest challenge in the double won't necessarily be fitness. Instead, it'll be about transitioning from IndyCar handling sensibilities to Cup car sensibilities upon Charlotte arrival.
"I think that the cars are really different, so it may take him a little while to get settled into our car," Knost said.
Knost is talking from experience. In an interview at Indianapolis 500 qualifying Sunday, Busch noted that he spent most of the All-Star Race's first segment getting back acquainted with the heavier, less nimble car. Such a process makes it tough to make significant strides forward in race conditions.
Busch's teammate knows that firsthand. After racing the Indianpolis 500 in 2001, Tony Stewart became the 600's first caution when he spun on Lap 3. However, he recovered to a third-place finish. Good race cars, after all, cure most ills.
"I think, if the car is good enough, (Busch will) be able to go up there and compete," Knost said.
Now time for Danica's consistency
There is no doubt that Danica Patrick's top-10 finish at Kansas Speedway was her best overall Sprint Cup race to date. Patrick methodically improved the car and her track position during the race, though largely seemed to lose most of her gained ground during restarts.
Regardless, Patrick's Kansas run — she's long been known to hate driving loose race cars and felt the Kansas car was fast largely because she finally felt secure on the track — was a success on the level of expectation. The key now for Patrick is turning runs like Kansas into significant streaks of success.
Starting fourth on Sunday night is a step in the right direction. But the biggest hurdle she still faces is consistency.
Charlotte ages back to Jimmie's liking?
An underlying current of last week's All-Star Race was an improved groove around Charlotte's 1.5-mile track. Finally, some eight years after Charlotte went through its full repave in 2006, the track seems to be finding some age and character again.
It's undoubtedly still lightning fast — drivers were barely blipping the throttle and dragging the brake during qualifying laps in the 27-second range during last week's All-Star qualifying — and remains an aero-dependent track. However, drivers seemed less and less perturbed by the dreaded aero push and had some longer runs side-by-side and nose-to-tail than previously seen in recent CMS races.
Familiar bumps on the backstretch and entering Turn 3 also seem to be reappearing.
All told, that may be music to Jimmie Johnson's ears. In the eight races immediately prefacing the 2006 repave, Johnson won five times. In the 16 races since, he has one win and just five top-5 finishes.
Botched qualifying for several top names
Thursday night's group qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600 went quite well for Jimmie Johnson. For other big names, it didn't go so hot.
The first sign of trouble came from Ryan Newman when significant handling issues quickly brought him back to pit road. The culprit? A left side tire had been inadvertently mounted on the right of the car — heavily skewing the car out of balance.
Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch slogged through the opening round with poor performing cars. Neither advanced to the second round, leaving the former champions scheduled to start 27th and 28th.
The last bit of silly business happened at the close of the final five-minute round for the pole. Two drivers — Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth — tried to play the countdown clock to their advantage by taking the green flag just before it expired. The thinking behind that strategy allows a car to cool down longer than others and attempt a lap in the coolest possible conditions.
Those objectives are lost, of course, when a driver fails to click by the start-finish line on a flying lap before the clock hits zero. Harvick and Kenseth both made that embarrassing mistake Thursday, relegating their starting positions to 11th and 12th and missing any shot at the pole.